HELENA NORBERG-HODGE

Founder

INTERNATIONAL SOCIETY FOR ECOLOGY AND CULTURE

INTERVIEW BY MICHAEL O'CALLAGHAN AT THE RIO+10 SUMMIT IN 2002
This is the transcript of a video interview produced and directed by Michael O'Callaghan at the U.N. World Summit on Sustainable Development, in Johannesburg, in 2002.
Full transcript (3,707 words, slightly edited for clarity).
© 2002-2019 Global Vision Foundation.
BACKGROUND
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Helena Norberg Hodge is the founder of the International Society for Ecology and Culture (www.isec.co.uk), an NGO working on biological and cultural diversity, and education for action: moving beyond single issues to look at the more fundamental influences that shape our lives.
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She is a co-founder of the International Forum on Globalisation (www.ifg.org), an alliance of sixty leading activists, scholars, economists, researchers and writers which stimulates new thinking, joint activity and public education about economic globalisation. .
How do you see globalisation and its related problems?

Economic globalisation is about de-regulating international trade and finance. Governments of virtually every political persuasion have been signing on to an agenda which actually means that they are giving large multinational corporations, banks, and speculative investors the right to move in and out of their countries freely. They are also signing on to an agenda which is forcing them to lower their standards in order to compete for the favours of these very large multinational corporations.

In the process, what's happening is that millions of small farmers around the world are going out of business. But it's not just farmers. Small, medium, and even large businesses are finding that they either have to merge, go global, or die. So we're in a rat race right now, which means that we're destroying many businesses that have been producing delicious foods, providing clothing, shelter, for centuries in some cases. They are going bankrupt because they can't compete in this global rat race. I think it's the most urgent issue facing us because this rat race towards globalising economic activity is pressuring CEOs, so that they barely have time to sleep and eat, because as part of a global corporation they're meant to be "on" twenty four hours a day; and everyone is under more time pressure; as they're under pressure to merge to survive, they also are not sure that they are going to be able to keep their job. So it's creating a neurosis and stress from the highest level of business down to the smallest third world farmer.

Why are we doing this? From my point of view, it's because we haven't examined the way in which growth is being calculated. We haven't looked at the fact that when measuring simply monetary transactions and trade, without stopping to consider whether it's sensible, sensible productive trade, what we're actually doing is allowing an indicator which increases [to be intepreted as a good thing]. But growth increases if water is so polluted that we all have to buy it in bottles. Growth also increases if there's more theft and we all have to buy new video players and new cars. Growth increases when countries ship identical products back and forth: fresh milk into a country in the same quantities that it's being shipped out. This is an insanity in an age of global warming, to be shipping identical products back and forth, further and further! If you go around the world today, you'll find that in every country the trend is towards the basic foodstuffs - that every person needs roughly three times a day - coming from further and further away. We need to stop and re-assess where we're heading from a big picture analysis. And we need a moratorium on further trade de-regulation and investment de-regulation. We need to lobby for a moratorium so that we can all - whether as CEOs, heads of governments, or as small farmers and small businesses - stop to assess where we are heading, what we can do to reduce the social and environmental crisis.

The fundamental issue is the economy. It is now creating in every country a wider gap between rich and poor. This is true in my native country of Sweden, where I have worked in other European countries, in remote third world countries like Bhutan in the Himalayas, where the gap between rich and poor is widening dramatically. It's becoming unsustainable, it is breeding anger and violence, it is leading to tremendous social instability as well as political and economic instability. So a moratorium on further trade and investment de-regulation could remedy the situation.

What we need instead of the economic globalisation that's going on, is a globalisation of the environmental movement, a globalisation of people who are concerned with rising poverty around the world, and this is beginning to happen. Through an international dialogue, people world-wide are beginning to realise that the political government from the left that came in was doing the same thing as the government from the right was doing. They're beginning to see that it doesn't matter whether it's in socialist Sweden or in Russia or in America, the pattern of environmental degradation, the gap between rich and poor is virtually the same everywhere.

What's happening is that people world-wide are beginning to share their stories, and a picture is emerging which is uniting them. It's a very exciting and very empowering movement, as labour union leaders and environmentalists link hands. It's a completely historical thing. It's never happened before. Farmers and consumers are finding that they both have an interest in healthier food, at an affordable price to the consumer, but also in a way that will allow the farmer to have a decent living. So you're finding a new, totally historic linking of hands between groups that previously saw themselves as separate, even antagonistic. They're uniting around the recognition that a sustainable economy requires a sustainable environment. You cannot sustain the economic activity if you cut down all the forests. If you've polluted all the soils you can't produce food, you will not have economic activity. So a sustainable environment and a sustainable economy go hand in hand. This is a growing recognition. And there is an international movement that is gaining ground day by day.

Would you say a few words about economic localisation?

In contradistinction to economic globalisation, there is a grass-roots movement that is about localising economic activity. It is about finding a balance between global trade and local production for local consumption. More and more communities are recognising that they're losing out when they export a single commodity and then have to buy all the things they need from the global marketplace. They're realising that particularly when it comes to food: it doesn't make sense to ship food out and back in again. So what's happening is a conscious attempt to link farmers and consumers, to shorten the food miles, to shorten the distances that milk and butter and live animals are travelling. The wonderful thing about the local food movement is that it immediately brings benefits to both consumers and farmers. By shortening distances every consumer dollar goes towards the food, rather than - as it often does in the supermarket - going towards packaging, transport, irradiation, colouring, and advertising! 95% of the food dollar is going to things that have nothing to do with food!

Suddenly when you shorten the distance the farmer gets the bulk of the money. His economic situation is improved while the consumer is paying less for fresh healthy food. At the moment in the supermarket local food often costs more than food from ten thousand miles away. I've travelled the world studying the situation with butter, and I've found that in Mongolia where you have 25 million milk-producing animals, where people have existed on dairy products for thousands of years, in Ulan Bator you can't even find Mongolian dairy products, they're German! In Nairobi I found that butter from Holland cost half as much as Kenyan butter! In Spain in the shops you get butter from Denmark. In Denmark you get served butter in a little plastic box from France. In England, in Devon - famous for its butter and cream - the New Zealand butter costs a third of the Devonshire butter! This is an economy which does not reflect either the price of labour, of resources, or of transport. The price reflects the heavy subsidies for trade and transport. And it reflects the fact that we are creating a monopolistic control of our local economies. So bringing the food economy home is one of the best ways of reversing a whole series of social and environmental crises. When you start shortening the distance, you're reducing transport. And by reducing the transport of food, you are reducing the main factor that contributes to global warming. So in an era of global warming, one of the best things we can do is to join the local food movement, help to bring back farmers' markets, pressure your local shop to carry local foods, bring local labelling schemes into your town or city, where local groups monitor the production and the handling of food. In this way we can liberalise or de-regulate local economic activity while we work to re-regulate global economic activity.

Another thing we need to be aware of is that economic globalisation is not happening of its own accord. It's not an evolutionary trend! On the contrary, it requires very heated negotiation. And often governments, as we see everywhere when they meet, find tremendous resistance to this process not only from the grass roots but also from the governments themselves. They are being pressured to move in this direction. We also need to recognise that this involves very heavy subsidies from government, a rolling out of the red carpet, putting billions into expanding and speeding up the transport infrastructure for instance, that's just one of many things.

Another more subtle thing we really need to raise awareness about is that while governments are de-regulating global economic activity they are ending up over-regulating local economic activity, so that farmers are being strangled by a whole raft of regulations that mean among other things that it takes more time and effort to get a passport for a new-born calf than it does for a new-born child, that farmers in Australia are told they have to have a washbasin in a field and wear rubber gloves when they pick beans, that farmers in France are going out of business because they're told they have to have tiles in the ceiling to make their goat's cheese, so farmers and families that have been producing delicious cheeses for centuries are having to shut down their businesses.

This over-regulation at the local level is happening for two reasons. One of them is that very large corporate agribusinesses and other businesses have created so much pollution that a lot of regulations have been brought in, health inspectors, environmental inspection. All of that costs a lot of money and leads to the breakdown of small businesses that often weren't polluting, whereas the big corporations are able to pay the fees and often get away with shifting their dirty production to countries where there are no such regulations. So we need to be very aware that we do not need some sort of Communist control of the economy, what we actually need is real free trade. We want to liberalise trade - that means that we remove all the hidden subsidies! And that means that we re-examine the regulations that have favoured monopolistic businesses over smaller, open, and accountable businesses at the local level. So a process of de-regulating local trade while re-regulating monopolies will create a free and fair economy.

Can say more about local food production?

In the light of what's going on with globalisation, there is nothing more important today than to strengthen local food systems. The distance that food is travelling, day by day, is increasing. And this is happening everywhere around the world, it doesn't matter if you go to the most remote part of the Himalayas, or to America or to South Africa – you will find that the food that people need and eat three times a day is coming from further and further away! Countries are now importing and exporting fresh milk, live animals, importing and exporting identical products longer and longer distances. This is while they talk about the problems of global warming! There should be nothing more important than to reduce this absurd import and export of food that people need three times a day. It's bulky, it needs enormous amount of transport. There is probably nothing that we could do that would reduce global warming more rapidly, than to ensure that people get the basic foods that they need every day from closer to home. This doesn't mean there should be no trade in coffee or bananas or oranges. It means that the milk and the butter and the meat and the wheat – the staples – will come from closer to home.

So helping to reduce the distances by bringing back farmers' markets, by urging local shops to carry local food, changing subsidies so that farmers are encouraged to diversify their production instead of specialising in monocrops for giant corporate agribusinesses that then get commodities at a very low price and turn around and package them and market them to the consumer. To avoid this horrendous waste, we need to change those subsidies so that farmers get help to re-vitalise and strengthen diversified production. It's one of the best ways of getting off the treadmill of ever more pesticides, ever more chemicals. Because when you diversify you are suddenly working with nature. Nature is diverse! Every plant is different from every other plant. And when you have a system of diversified farms you suddenly find that the need for pesticides is reduced, fertilisers can be created out of the cycle if you have vegetables as well as animals and even better, grain as well. So to diversify and localise is the way forward! You would automatically be reducing CO2 emissions dramatically because of transport. You would also be reducing the mountains of waste that are plaguing every community today. You would be reducing the amounts of energy and effort put into preservatives, now a science that basically turns food into dead products with very little nutritional value, so you would be improving nutrition as well as reducing the waste and packaging. And by helping farmers to diversify, you are working with natural cycles, and in so doing farmers find that wildlife returns to the land. So there is probably no single action that is more important than rebuilding local food systems for solving a whole range of environmental crises!

Furthermore, when you help farmers to diversify, and when you encourage local food systems to be re-vitalised, you are actually bringing back jobs in a whole range of activities. Through strengthening local economies, you're also giving farmers a much higher price for their products. When we have the long distances, if we pay a dollar for an item of food from the supermarket, very often the farmer gets less than 5 per cent of that dollar. When you shorten the distances, the farmer can get as much as 50 per cent, sometimes even 90 per cent of the money you spend. So you are not spending more money, you are not paying more for food, in fact you are paying less for fresh healthy food and the farmer is getting vastly more money!

Don't believe the myth that farmers are asking for bigger and bigger subsidies because they're greedy. The truth is that farmers – real farmers – world-wide are going bankrupt. The suicide rate among farmers in virtually every country is the highest. Why? Because they are not being paid for the hard work they do to produce the most important thing that human beings can produce: the food that we all need every day! The farmers in our society are getting almost nothing, this is why they're going bankrupt and committing suicide. What is happening is that we're subsidising commodities for the middleman, corporations that benefit from getting food that is subsidised. They then turn around and market it to us at an ever higher price. We're not paying less and less for our food, we're paying more and more! We have statistics that show that in the same period that the price of corn fell by 30 per cent to the farmers, in that same period consumers were paying 30 per cent more for the corn in a box of cereals! So we need to shorten the distance to avoid farmers world-wide going bankrupt.

And this is not just a crisis in the industrialised world, where farmers are often just two or three per cent of the population. This is a global crisis of enormous proportions! 50 per cent of the human race is still on the land, mostly in the so-called Third World. The current policies, that are supporting ever larger monocrops for longer and longer distances – controlled by larger and larger corporations – are driving that half of humanity off the land, and the majority are ending up in slums. The poverty leads to desperation. It leads to violence, and instability. Ultimately it leads to terrorism. So it's absolutely vital that we take this issue seriously, immediately lobby to change the policies of aid and development that are driving farmers off the land, and support a turn-around where the priority will be that people in every region and every country will be feeding themselves first, exporting second, in order to ensure that there is no hunger, and that we avoid huge mountains of food rotting in storage while people go hungry.

So bringing back local food systems, helping farmers to diversify in both North and South, is the number one issue today.

The transnational agri-biotech corporations say genetically engineered crops are needed to end hunger. What do you think of GMOs?

The reason why genetic engineering is not going to solve hunger, is that the entire technology has been brought in by for-profit corporations. The research has been funded by them for profit! This is an attempt to control the world's food supply. They have funded the research and the propaganda that has been pushing this technology as a way of solving hunger. What is actually happening is that farmers around the world are now being forbidden to use their own local seeds that for generations have fed people. They are being forced to use hybridised seeds that do not regenerate! So if we really look at this issue from a big picture analysis, if we look at where it comes from, who is benefiting from it, this is one of the main reasons we should say No! In addition, the research that has examined the health and cological impacts of this technology is virtually non-existent. There has been almost no funding to look at this. Those few scientists who managed to get a little bit of funding, like Arpad Pushtai, found horrifying results on feeding rats with modified potatoes. He had been in favour of genetic engineering, and was horrified to see that rats fed on these potatoes developed serious illnesses, their whole immune systems were under attack! We absolutely need to have a moratorium on this technology, to have real research look at the health impact. We also need to have a clear economic examination of who benefits from this technology, and what it will mean for food and farmers for generations to come.

Furthermore, we haven't had research on examining the ecological impact of genetic engineering. We've been told that it is no threat to pollution, that it cannot spread. We now already have had dramatic examples – in Mexico and in England – of exactly that happening! It is really high time that the public said No! to this technology, and insists on curtailing it and have a moratorium until we know what the real impacts are.

How do you feel about the link between globalisation and terrorism?

Globalisation is about giving very large mobile global businesses greater freedom to move in and out of countries world wide. That's what the trade deregulation, the finance deregulation, is about. It is leading to a concentration of economic activity in fewer and fewer hands. Millions of farmers are going out of business. Millions of smaller- and medium-sized businesses are going bankrupt. The end result is that we are creating job scarcity on a crowded planet with so much work to do, with such a great need for teachers, for doctors, for nurses, for farmers! We are destroying those jobs and concentrating economic activity in fewer and fewer hands. The few people who have a job have to work harder and faster to produce more and more day by day.

What this is leading to, particularly in the so-called third world – where millions of people are being driven off the land at an accelerating rate – is desperation and intensified competition. Very often that competition takes the form of ethnic friction between groups that find that the government in power will favour its own religious or racial group, the rest feel marginalised and are becoming violent. The terrorism we have witnessed recently is a consequence of these economic policies, and is leading to instability, to insecurity, and to a desperation that makes young people willing to sacrifice their life for their own people.

Another element in all of this is that the corporate pressures are not only economic, they're not only destroying millions of jobs, but they are also foisting on young children around the world a consumer culture identity, a stereotypical identity that has almost nothing to do with their culture, their language, their skin colour, their way of doing things. Young people are being made to feel backward, stupid and inferior if they don't identify with this consumer culture. The result from this leads to a deep psychological self-rejection and violence.

The reaction of these pressures, too, is often one of a fundamentalism, of a turning inwards, trying to close off the doors to the outside Western world, and one where fundamentalism becomes more and more rigid...

Yes, but, it's not only the fundamentalists in the developing countries closing out the Western world, it's also the American fundamentalists closing out the rest of the planet, you know. Could you just say something about that?

The end result of the psychological and economic pressures from corporate-led globalisation is that people everywhere are being made to feel insecure and are closing in, turning back in a fundamentalist way to their own tradition. This is happening within America with Christian fundamentalism, it's happening in the Islamic world. As this fundamentalism leads to a closing in, it also leads to a more and more angry rejection of the commercial system that is creating these pressures, and is leading world-wide to anger, frustration, and violence.